Health and Nutrition Articles

Iron: Your Oxygen Transporter

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Iron Health Benefits and Uses

Iron is a mineral that has a variety of uses in the body. Its most important function, however, is that of helping to store and transport oxygen.

Oxygen Transport

Iron is used in making a protein found in red blood cells called hemoglobin. The red blood cells use hemoglobin to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Iron is also used in making another protein called myoglobin. This protein is present in the muscles and heart and allows them to retain and utilize oxygen.

Cellular Energy Production

The production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) also requires iron. ATP is a molecule that is used in the energy production of all of the cells in the body.

According to Nutritional Medicine by Alan R. Gaby, MD, iron is involved in ATP production because it is part of what makes up proteins called cytochromes. Cytochromes are involved in the transportation of electrons across cell membranes. This process, called the electron-transport chain, contributes to the creation of energy (ATP) in the cell.

Thyroid Function

Also according to Dr. Alan Gaby, iron is needed for making thyroid hormone.

Foods High in Iron: Heme and Non-Heme

Dietary sources of iron can be found in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron has been attached to a heme protein. Heme iron is found in animal sources and was once part of the animal's hemoglobin.

Non-heme iron is a form of iron that does not come from animal sources, but can instead be found in various plant sources.

Heme iron tends to be more readily absorbed by the body. According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, heme iron has a 15-35% absorption rate, and non-heme iron has a 2-20% absorption rate.

The absorption rate of non-heme iron is also affected more by other dietary factors than heme iron is.

Animal Sources of Iron
Food Source Milligrams % Daily Value
Chicken Liver, pan-fried, 3 ounces 11 61
Beef, ground, 85% lean, patty, broiled, 3 ounces 2.2 12%
Tuna, light, canned in water, 3 ounces 1.3 7
Turkey, light meat, roasted, 3 ounces 1.1 6
Chicken, dark meat, meat only, roasted, 3 ounces 1.1 6
Chicken, light meat, meat only, roasted, 3 ounces 0.9 5
Pork, loin chop, broiled, 3 ounces 0.7 4

Plant Sources of Iron
Food Source Milligrams % Daily Value
Ready-to-eat cereal, 100% iron fortified ¾ Cup 18.0 100
Oatmeal, instant, fortified, prepared with water, 1 packet 11.0 61
Beans, lima, large, mature, boiled, 1 cup 4.5 25
Tofu, raw, firm, ½ cup 3.4 19
Spinach, fresh, boiled, drained, ½ cup 3.2 18
Grits, white, enriched, quick, prepared with water, 1 cup 0.9 5
Bread, whole-wheat, commercially prepared, 1 slice 0.7 4

Adequate Iron Intake

The amount of iron that should be consumed varies according to sex, age, and whether one is pregnant or lactating.

In Nutritional Medicine, Dr Gaby provides the following guidelines for healthy iron intake (p.147).

Recommended Iodine Levels
Age Men (mg/day) Women (mg/day) Pregnancy (mg/day) Lactating (mg/day)
0-6 months .27 .27 - -
7-12 months 11 11 - -
1-3 years 7 7 - -
4-8 years 10 10 - -
9-13 years 8 8 - -
14-18 years 11 15 27 10
19-50 years 8 18 27 9
51+ years 8 8 - -

Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide. Iron deficiency can cause a form of anemia that results when the body cannot make enough red blood cells due to lack of iron.

Iron deficiency anemia can occur when the body loses blood cells or iron at a rate that cannot be resupplied quickly enough. It can also result from too little iron in the diet or from a failure of the body to properly absorb iron.

Anemia from iron deficiency may cause symptoms such as

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Mental fog
  • Pale skin

A problematic loss of iron occurs as a result of excessive bleeding. Therefore, menstrual periods that cause an excessive loss of blood and other conditions that may include internal bleeding can cause iron deficiency.

Certain gastrointestinal conditions, such as Crohn's disease, can keep the body from absorbing enough iron.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding require more iron than usual, so a failure to compensate for the additional need for iron during these times may cause iron deficiency.

Too Much Iron

There is a possibility that iron could reach toxic levels within the body if too much is consumed.

Excessive iron may initially cause diarrhea and vomiting. Prolonged iron overdose may eventually result in neurological damage and a condition called hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis may lead to diabetes and cause liver damage.

Interactions with Other Nutrients

The following information taken from Nutritional Medicine conveys how iron interacts with other nutrients in the body.

  • Vitamin C: This vitamin helps in the absorption of non-heme iron, but may also increase free radical damage from iron.
  • Zinc: Non-heme Iron and Zinc use the same pathway in the process of absorption. Because of the competition this creates between the two minerals, supplementing with one can lead to an increased need for the other. Heme iron does not have an effect on the absorption of zinc, however. It may be better to supplement with iron and zinc at different times of the day.
  • Copper: This mineral may also compete with iron for absorption.
  • Calcium: Higher calcium supplementation doses of may inhibit the absorption of iron.
  • Manganese: Iron and manganese may inhibit the absorption of the other.
  • Vitamin E: Iron may inhibit the absorption and effectiveness of vitamin E. It may be better to take Iron and vitamin E supplements at different times of the day.
  • Lysine: Taking 1.5-2.0 grams of lysine a day may help improve iron absorption.

Iron Interactions with Medications

There are many potential interactions that iron supplements may have with various medications.

The University of Maryland Medical Center provides the following guidelines.

Medications that should not be taken along with iron supplements:

  • Allopurinol (Zyloprim)
  • Penicillamae
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Cholestyramine and Colestipol
  • Medications used for ulcers, GERD, and other stomach conditions
  • Antacids

Iron may inhibit the absorption of certain medications. These include

  • Tetracycline
  • Quinolones
  • Bisphosphonates
  • ACE inhibitors

Iron may also reduce the effectiveness or blood levels of

  • Carbidopa and Levodopa
  • Levothyroxine
  • Birth control medications

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References

Quick Facts

  • Iron is used in making a protein found in red blood cells called hemoglobin
  • Dietary sources of iron can be found in two forms, from animal and plant products
  • Animal sources tend to be more readily absorbed by your body
  • The amount of iron you need varies according to your sex, age, and whether you are pregnant or lactating.
  • Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide
  • Iron deficiency can cause a form of anemia in which your body cannot make enough red blood cells
  • There is a possibility that iron could reach toxic levels within the body if too much is consumed
  • There are many potential interactions that iron supplements may have with various medications